Polk presided over the era of Manifest Destiny, adding the territories of Texas and Oregon to the United States during his presidency. Little did he know that this vast expansion would force the country ever closer to civil war. 

Оршил

  • James Knox Polk was the 11th president of the United States. He served one term in office from 1845 to 1849.
  • Polk is the president most associated with the ideology of Manifest Destiny, which held that white European-Americans were divinely ordained to settle the North American continent.
  • During Polk’s presidency, the United States went to war with Mexico and negotiated the boundaries of Oregon territory with the British.

James K. Polk’s early life

James Knox Polk was born to a slaveholding family in North Carolina, the eldest of 10 children. The family moved to Tennessee when Polk was a child. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he studied law in Nashville. A lifelong Democrat, Polk was elected to the Tennessee state legislature in 1823 and was a firm supporter of Andrew Jackson, who was elected to represent Tennessee in the US Senate the same year. In 1825, Polk was elected to serve in the US House of Representatives. He was reelected several times and became Speaker of the House in 1835.
After leaving Congress, Polk returned to Tennessee and was elected governor in 1839. As governor of Tennessee, he prioritized education, banking regulation, and infrastructure development, but his plans were sometimes stymied by the state legislature. In 1844, he ran for president on the Democratic ticket against Whig candidate Henry Clay of Kentucky. The dominant campaign issue was continental expansion, particularly the acquisition of Oregon country and the annexation of Texas. Polk was a strong proponent of both, while Clay was ambivalent. Reflecting popular enthusiasm for the ideology of Manifest Destiny, which held that white European-Americans were destined by God to settle the North American continent, Polk won with 50 percent of the popular vote and 170 electoral votes.1^1

The Polk presidency

Upon entering the White House, Polk set four major goals for his presidency. He hoped to acquire some or all of Oregon territory, obtain California and New Mexico from Mexico, reduce tariff rates, and charter a permanent independent treasury. In 1846, Congress passed the Walker Tariff, which substantially lowered tariffs from their 1842 rates. The same year, Polk authorized the Independent Treasury System, under which all government funds were held in the Treasury instead of in private banks.
On the foreign policy front, Polk worked with Great Britain to resolve the dispute over Oregon country, which had been jointly occupied by the United States and the United Kingdom since 1818. Though he had campaigned on the slogan “54-40 or fight!”, which referred to the latitude of the territory up to the southern border of Russian Alaska, he compromised and accepted a division at the 49th parallel. The territory acquired by the United States under the provisions of the Oregon Treaty of 1846 included the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming.

Polk and the Mexican-American War

Polk hoped to purchase California and New Mexico from Mexico and authorized diplomat John Slidell to offer $24 to $30 million for the territory. However, despite repeated warnings from Mexico that the annexation of Texas would lead to war, Congress in 1845 passed a joint resolution inviting Texas to join the Union. Texas accepted and became a state in December 1845. This angered the Mexican government so much that it refused to receive Slidell. Polk retaliated by sending troops into disputed territory to pressure Mexico into negotiating. The result was the Mexican-American War.
Polk took active leadership of the war effort, crafting an overall military strategy that was highly effective. Mexico surrendered in 1848, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the contemporary borders between Mexico and the United States. Mexico lost almost half of its territory, while the territory of the United States grew by a third. This vast land transfer included the modern-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.2^2
Though it may seem that Polk achieved all of his goals as president, his embrace of Manifest Destiny and the acquisition of new territories inflamed tensions between abolitionists and slaveholders and heightened conflict between white settlers and Native Americans.3^3 While the North and South fought over whether the new states admitted to the Union were to be free states or slave states, the battles between the Plains Indians and settlers in Texas grew particularly vicious. Though Comanches put up an especially fierce resistance to the encroachment of white people onto their lands, they were ultimately vanquished and relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1875.
Meanwhile, the debate over the Wilmot Proviso was one of the major events leading up to the Civil War. The proviso, which was strongly opposed by the slaveholding South, asserted that the Mexican-American War had not been fought for the purpose of expanding slavery, and stipulated that slavery would never exist in the territories acquired from Mexico in the war. Ultimately, Polk’s territorial expansionism, though aimed at national unity, wound up intensifying sectional conflict and further paving the road to civil war.4^4

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How would you rate Polk as a president? What were his most significant achievements? What were his most consequential shortcomings?
Why do you think Polk went to war with Mexico for territory but negotiated with the British?
Do you think the outcome of the Mexican-American War made the Civil War inevitable? Why or why not?
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